Every year, The Dressage Foundation selects four Young Riders between the ages of 16 and 21 along with 22-year-old graduates of the Advanced Young Rider Program who are riding at Fourth Level or above, for their Young Rider International Dream Program (formerly known as the Olympic Dream Program). I was one of the 2012 participants as were Nicole Del Giorno (NJ), Jaclyn Pepper (CA) and Jennifer Detandt (FL), who were chaperoned by Ashley Perkins (MD) and Eliza Sydnor Romm (NC). This program allows young dressage riders to travel to Europe for 10 days, visiting top facilities, trainers and competitions. The following is a behind-the-scenes look at our trip.
Jan Bemelmans: Gymnastics for Horses
The first trainer we had the privilege to meet was Jan Bemelmans, who has had an eventful life as a rider and coach. Herr Bemelmans was a master at implementing gymnastic exercises with his horses. He was extremely generous with the animals, stating, “I try to do things in a gentle way, and then he doesn’t need to ever defend himself.” The horses were the best proof of this method, as they were consistently willing and happy to attempt anything that he asked of them. Like others on the trip, he had an uncanny understanding of the horse’s body language that allowed him to know exactly when to push and when to back off.
Hubertus Schmidt: All About Feel
The next day we headed to Fleyenhof, the base of renowned trainer Hubertus Schmidt. He has quite the staff, and at all times he would be riding and simultaneously teaching four or five other riders working with the training horses. The quality and quantity of horses at Fleyenhof was simply incredible. The most notable thing we saw as Herr Schmidt rode horse after horse was that he has amazing feel and tact. He has an ability to make prompt, smooth corrections and to utilize each exercise without ever second guessing himself. Herr Schmidt told us that the secret to his success and talent was “years and years of riding, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.” He explained that one must often do something wrong before you can feel how to make it right.
Monica Theodorescu: No Secrets, Only Success
Our next visit was a trip to the stable of Monica Theodorescu, the new coach for the German team who also is carefully nurturing a successful breeding and training operation. She credits her success to consistency and patience day after day. She feels that the Training Scale must be implemented in every ride or concepts can become confusing or muddled. Monica has a personal approach to training that works for her and allows time to work with her own talented equines, many of whom she bred herself. The highlight of our day was watching her school her Grand Prix mount, Whisper. They had the utmost respect for one another. For us, it showcased what dressage is really about.
Morten Thomsen: Innovation
On leaving Monica Theodorescu’s stable, we made the long drive north to Denmark to visit Morten Thomsen and his wife, Sarah. He begins working with his youngsters at 2 or 3 years of age beginning with groundwork in a rope halter. He calls this the “ABC’s of dressage, where the magic all begins.” Morten thinks of himself as a teacher, constantly asking the horses different questions. He stressed to us the importance of never punishing the horse for mistakenly giving the wrong answer, because getting upset is like saying “don’t give me an answer!” He explained that you must calmly redirect the horse until he finds the right response, and then reward him. It was intriguing to see how the work in-hand with the younger horses at the lower levels slowly builds up to confirmed Grand Prix work with the finished horses. Witnessing this progress reinforced the fact that dressage is a lifelong journey on which success is based on correct basics, patience and time.
The Balkenhols: Classic, Correct
Then, we headed off to see Klaus Balkenhol and his daughter, Annabel. The first thing they did was show us their young horses in the field. Most of the trainers had their own breeding programs in conjunction with their training programs, continuously providing them with talented young horses. Soon we were invited into the indoor to take a seat and watch several horses go. Herr Balkenhol is a huge advocate of the Training Scale and classical methods. His riders reflect this and they all rode with quiet seats, sympathetic hands and thoughtful corrections. Herr Balkenhol kept reminding the riders to continue “sitting, balancing and directing the movement of the horse.”
Wolfram Wittig: Enjoying the Job
Next, we were able to visit Wolfram Wittig, who was tremendously happy in his work and very proud and excited to show us the gorgeous horses in his stable. Herr Wittig was practical and thoughtful in his approach with his horses and the best advice he told us was that “they are just horses. They must enjoy their work and you must become partners.” He went on to explain that if the horse thinks of training as anything other than fun, he will never give you his best effort or be willing to trust you. We started to admire the way he was always having fun in the saddle.
Schafhof: Ending on a High Note
Heading to the last stop of our trip, was the Schafhof estate, home of Klaus Martin Rath, his son Matthias Rath and his wife Ann Kathrin Lisenhoff. We saw many high-quality horses school that day, each one ridden with a clear and precise routine. Every single rider had a plan when each stepped into the arena to work with a horse. That plan had to be flexible as the ride progressed and the horses communicated their strengths and weaknesses that day, but the original plan was always there for guidance and structure. The whole barn was like a well-oiled machine with the family working in sync with each other. The results were obvious as the rides were efficient, successful and productive. We thoroughly enjoyed that day and the amazing facility, horses and people made it all seem surreal.
All of us thank everyone at The Dressage Foundation for making this adventure so memorable.